Can Short Swimmers Compete at the Highest Levels?

Asian Games 200 Free Men

I know this is a provocative title, but it’s a serious question. I often get approached by parents asking if their relatively short child has a future as a swimmer. And of course I say yes, because every swimmer should strive to reach their potential. But there is a deeper question buried in there. Can a short swimmer successfully compete at the highest levels?

Not surprisingly, the answer is YES! Short swimmers can and do compete at the highest levels in the world of swimming. So why is it that we see so few short swimmers at the highest levels?

The bottom line is that the truly elite swimmers have almost every possible performance factor going for them. Not just height, but toughness, discipline, technique, resiliency, competitiveness, body proportions, etc. And they have a team behind them that provide the best coaching, nutrition, sports psychology, emotional support, etc. But since no swimmer is superior in all areas, it opens the door to swimmers who have one or more factors that aren’t optimal.

This is where short swimmers come in. While being short is a serious handicap, this can be more than made up with very hard work, great technique, killer attitude, and some genetic luck in terms of body proportions, superior adaptation to training, joint resiliency, etc. A height disadvantage can be overcome. An inability to work hard, or pay attention, or bad technique usually can’t be.

It just so happens that we currently have two examples of outstanding short swimmers.

Kosuke Hagino of Japan is arguably the top male swimmer in the world. He recently medalled in all 6 individual events he swam at the 2014 Asian games, including 3 gold. This included beating out Olympic champions, and recording times that put him at the very highest levels in the world in some races. Kosuke is 5′ 8 3/4″ tall. While not exactly short by public standards, in the swimming world that is considered very short.

Katinka Hosszu of Hungary was recently named the 2013-14 Arena Grand Prix Series winner, with 10 victories in the Grand Prix series and far ahead of second place. Katinka is 5′ 6 7/8″ tall. Again, this may be considered a reasonable height by public standards, but in the swimming world this makes her one of the shortest elite competitors out there.

So, how prevalent are short swimmers in the top ranks? In order to determine this I looked at the heights of the finalists of 7 different men’s and women’s races at the London Olympics. I picked somewhat arbitrary heights as being indicative of a short swimmer. Here’s what I found.

Just over 10% of the male finalists in these 7 events were 5′ 10″ or shorter, and almost 20% of the female finalists were 5′ 6″ or shorter. Again, neither height is short by public standards, but certainly short by swimming standards. And it shows that short swimmers are really not all that rare.

Next, I looked at the variations in average finalist heights for the different events. Here’s what I found.

Average Height

Based on this, we can see that average heights are taller for sprints and freestyle events, and slightly shorter for 200 Breaststroke, 200 Fly and 400 IM.

Until recently, I thought that was pretty much the story about short swimmers. Elite short swimmers were a little uncommon, tended to focus on longer events, and they had to be much tougher than their taller peers. But then the Swimming Science site published an excellent article (here) by Tiago M. Barbosa about the energy expenditure of the top 3 finishers in the Men’s 200 Free at the 2014 Asian Games (see picture at the top of this post). It blew my mind.

This article examined the estimate energy expenditure for each 50 split for the winner Kosuke Higano of Japan, silver medalist Sun Yang of China, and bronze medalist Park Tae-Hwan of Korea. This table illustrates the results.

Asian Games 200 Free Men

Notice that the much shorter Hagino expended far less energy in winning the race over his much taller opponents. In fact he only expended 75% of the energy used by the much taller, silver medalist Sun Yang. In this particular case, being smaller resulted in not having to move as much mass through the water. A distinct advantage for a small swimmer.

The story gets even better for short swimmers when we move below the elite level. These swimmers typically have a number of factors negatively influencing their performance. A short swimmer who excels at most other factors can be expected to be far more common.

Bottom line – being a short swimmer doesn’t mean you can’t compete against taller competitors. But it does mean you’re going to have to work much harder, have better technique, and pay more attention to all the things that influence performance. Those are all things you can control. Oh, and you may want to stay away from those sprints and look for longer distances.

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52 comments

  1. […] Can Short Swimmers Compete at the Highest Levels? […]

  2. Anonymous · · Reply

    I am a swimming mum from the UK and follow your posts which I think are fabulous. You really do provide food for thought and criteria to chew the fat over whilst watching the kids swim their training lengths. This article is particularly close to my heart as I keep banging on about height all the time as my children are still age groupers and competing against giants who have clearly gone through puberty and definitely have genetics in their side too. I keep telling my children they will grow eventually and not to give up and this article proves it could end up being worth it. Keep posting please they’ve great!

    1. What’s a swimming mum?

      1. Swimming mum
        Is a fabulous mother who keeps an eye on all
        the sprouts about to grow upwards… Lol!

  3. Anonymous · · Reply

    They’re even!

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Swimming Mum. This is an issue that is close to my heart as well, as I was a short swimmer. I’m hoping that this type of article will encourage short swimmers to keep at it, even though at times it may seem insurmountable. It’s amazing what hard work and attention to technique can accomplish.

  5. ignatius · · Reply

    Cool! I want to swim now, maybe I’ll beat Phelps one day, or maybe is it to pretentious! Anyway thanks for this article! Great work

  6. Anonymous · · Reply

    They should make olympics for short people too.

  7. There is also Kenneth To from Australia who just missed the world cup but should be in next year’s olympics

    1. I agree completely. I’ve been watching Kenneth for a while with great interest. What an incredible and versatile swimmer! And 5’7″

  8. I am short and older masters swimmer and I love sprints! My technique is one of the best and oh yes, I am very thin compared to everyone else. My whole family is small aNd slender and we excel at swimming and finesse sports such as fencing. I will now stop whining at my build and go win! Thanks for the article….I have long thought technique works better than thrashing.

    1. You have an excellent attitude, Susan!

      My personal philosophy is to pursue what I love doing, and challenge myself to get better. But I love how the data also tells us that size isn’t necessary to be the best.

      We should all approach like as if there are no limits!

  9. Anonymous · · Reply

    Yes, short swimmer can be successful, but you have to do much more extra work to make up body weakness than tall swimmer.

  10. You are full of shit. I swam for years and am around 5ft 9.i started at 6 and when I was 8 i was a well coordinated and big for my age. As a kid I set several age group state records some of which still stand. I was on a state highschool championship relay. But as I got older 14_15 and didn’t grow to be 6ft3 or 6ft4 or larger. I swam with national level swimmers that i couldn’t keep up with. especially in longer 200_500 races . It’s just physics. You know this. Hands are bigger,feet, legs and arms cover more ground. To tell a parent that yes their average height or short kid can accomplish any thing etc in swinging is bs. To point out one or two anomalies is disingenuous horse shit. If you just use 6ft as a line of demarcation. You tell me how many men that can compete at the highest level are below that line and how many are above it. I know the deal dude. I lived it.All these guys who swim on a national level by and large are huge. Ya they work hard. But an avg height person could do the same workouts and never achieve the same times. No matter what you just won’t go as fast. Is it impossible?well not completely but you basically have to be a physical freak to be in the same league. It’s just physics. I only wish I knew this sooner.

    1. JJ, it sounds like you didn’t enjoy your swimming experience. As I said in the article, being short is a serious disadvantage, but its not a fatal one. Unwillingness to train ferociously hard, lack of discipline, inattention to technique: those are all fatal. I’m writing this on Day 3 of swimming at Rio. We’ve already seen two males at 5’9″ or shorter win medals (Hagino gold 400 IM, Seto bronze 400 IM) and Hosszu (under 5’7″) win the 400IM in World Record time. Short swimmers can definitely play atthe top levels.

    2. I’m willing to bet that you’re a complete loser in life, JJ, with that defeatist attitude.

      1. Why would you even say that Nishi? Calling someone a loser is not a winning move. JJ’s experience is valid and he just sounds frustrated. I found this article after noticing how tall all the Olympic female swimmers are. I’m barely 5’1″ and I never would have been able to compete in swimming. Gymnastics on the other hand, possibly.

      2. Thank you for the information about Joseph Schooling! That is my point exactly, Joseph worked extremely hard and had supportive parents and government to allow him to reach his goals. People like Phelps and Olesiak ( congratulations, Penny) work hard for their goals and there are many others but not everyone has the physical attributes. I have long stopped comparing my short height to others and just concentrate on swimming technically better and enjoying the art of swimming despite not hearing a start or having a coach who verbally abused us and little parental support due to financial constraints. I have in me a will to win in the things that matter and yet remain easy going out of the pool. But in the pool since I was junior Olympian in the USA to being a Masters in Canada – my goal is to swim fast and improve all on my own and not worry about the family genes of shortness and we are all excellent swimmers. I am the only one still swimming as it keeps my adhd in check as Phelps finds the sport helps his adhd. Just keep
        Swimming !

      3. A strong will and a strong kick will get you everywhere. I have had to tone my kick down from childhood to be a better Masters swimmer in pure sprints. Many swimmers neglect the kick, even the coach from the big city masters team I swim for twice a year says it is the best along with technique. A well balanced – between upper and lower body strength will go a long way.

      4. I love your attitude, Susan. I too love to train, and push myself as hard as I can. But I also have no intention to compete any more. Swimming for me is a way to push myself to get better, while helping the others in my lane to get better as well. A win-win as far as I can see

      5. Hi Coach, I am total agreement, when I do compete it means months of hard training alone as my team is in a big city. I would be lying if I said I only compete for my highly ranked team. I compete to challenge myself because in doing so- it enhances all aspects of my life and enables me to set goals and complete them. Competing for me is harder and harder and I am hopeful to be a coach as the best part of swimming is teaching others to enjoy the medium of the blue.
        Thank you for your comments!

      6. Hi Julia, thanks for your comment. My only concern is when you say you could never compete in swimming. It’s true you don’t have the ideal height to be a swimmer, but if you work hard you can still be very good. There are lots of examples of short swimmers who have done well, even at these Rio Olympics. I’ll be posting about this soon actually. But the whole point about any sport is to compete with yourself to become the best you can possibly be. For a very very small number, that’s the Olympics. For others, it’s whatever level you can reach by trying your hardest!

  11. Thank you for the comments! I posted last year about being short 5.4 inches and very small). I am a Master’s swimmer approaching the last two decades of life ( we live a long time). I will say this being short only hampered me wgen competing against the medallists in the 1968
    Olympics. ( The would be medallist swam against us in tri county championships). When she showed up, everyone gave up but not me. I gave it my all even if I was one lap behind.
    To compound all this, I have been deaf since birth. I have never heard the gun go off but I can see very well. Even in current meets, I will have a mate lay a hand on my butt to let me know when to start. The young swimmers came up and asked how do I always start faster than even the men? It is practise, study the videos and work in technique. Not all swimmers are tall ir should be physiological specimens but like any sport or endeavour, they should have a passion to be the best and yet, have fun!
    Ps, I have Adhd and like Michael, I have to be more goal oriented than most or I get into trouble lol!

    1. Hi Susan, Thanks so much for providing an example of determination! The whole point behind this post is to show that we should work hard on the attributes we can change (passion, determination, technique, effort, etc) and accept the ones we can’t (height, genes, physical limitations). The bottom line is that those who can maximize their controllable attributes can achieve success, even right up to the highest levels. Keep swimming!

      1. Thank you again Coach Rick! The example of Janet Evans swimming with a high stroke rate and odd stroke did pretty well!
        As you mentioned, you can have the ideal attributes but neglect the passion and fail to reach your goals. The high level achievers have an intense curiosity coupled with the passion to tinker and hone their respective activities to do better because ultimately they please themselves by pursuing inner driven goals no
        matter what. Btw, I was a junior Olympian and just came back after 50 years off. Now, I appreciate it even more and know it can never be mastered but I try….

      2. susan huber · ·

        Very welcome and very helpful to hear many types of comments!

        Sent from my iPhone

        >

  12. Rick, came across this post whilst trying to ‘gee up’ my daughter (Varsity swimmer – 5ft 2 in), she’s currently glued to the swimming at Rio and trying to catch a glimpse of Audrey LeCroix who my daughter sees as a demi god when it comes to ‘short swimmers’ all was going OK reading your article until the comment of ‘While being short is a serious handicap’ she is now even more demoralised than ever ! and the rest of the article did not have a chance of sinking in……

    1. Ouch. Sorry about that Clint. If it helps, just look at the results of the first race here. 400 IM. Gold and Bronze went to guys who are 5’9″. As well, Canada’s Rachel Nicol just got 5th in 100 BR here, and she’s 5’3″ even.

  13. Anonymous · · Reply

    Yep following that Rick, I think the key to your article is expressing (as you do) the importance of the ‘complete picture’ – ‘The whole is greater that the Sum of the Parts’ etc Realising that if you do concentrate on the other areas to make up for any one part of the whole (in this case, height) then you can compete at the highest level – the likes of Phelps (dominant in every aspect of the chosen sport) are a rarity, it’s just unlucky if you’re competing in your chosen sport at the same time as one of these rarities (just ask Ryan Lochte !)

    Cheers – no worries about my daughter – managed to conduct ‘damage limitation’ by trawling for other ‘short sporting hero’s’; Mugsy Bogues (Basketball), and even the beach Volleyball (Canada) Olympian last night was coming in at 5″7, and she managed to catch the interview with Audrey LeCroix – so all is good again……..

  14. Hi, do you have any specific workouts or swimming routines that you would reccomend to a short swimmer (I’m only 5’9″) that would help me(or anyone else short) excel. Or do you suggest the same workouts for a taller swimmer and a shorter swimmer just more intense. Thanks

    1. Hi Kevin. There are no specific workouts or routines that help short swimmers more than others. Even more, your coach will have a carefully prepared training program that pays attention to energy systems, periodization, technique, etc. Just follow your existing training program, and give it your all. You’ll need excellent technique and a ferocious work ethic to make the most of your potential. Trust your coach and GO FOR IT!

  15. Hi, I’d be interested to hear your opinion on short swimmers that have an unusual wing span, that which rivals the taller swimmers. As an example, I’m on 5 foot 9/10, however my wingspan is around 6 foot 4, same stroke length and less weight = faster swim or do you think other factors regarding height disrupt that?

    1. Hi Matt. Since our pull is out major way of moving forward, your long arms should really help you out. Our legs don’t do very much other than BR, so the short legs won’t hurt you. The main thing you need to do is nail down your technique to get the most out of those long arms. Make sure you good extension and finish your stroke. But mainly just listen to your coach!

  16. […] height is 1.84 m (close to the ideal height of 1.90 m). In swimming, a tall height is desirable, as that would lead to an instant lead the moment you jump into the water. But this is not […]

  17. Reilly Ploplis · · Reply

    Hi, I swim for a small club in Rowan County, North Carolina. I’m currently 16 years old, and I’m 5’9″. But my issue is, I excel at sprinting, and the average height for a professional sprinter is 6’4″. So what does that mean to me? I’m suppose to end up being 5’11”, I’ll be lucky to even end up being 6′, or 6’1″. But in sprinting, will there be any advantages to me being smaller than the rest of the sprinting world? Thankfully was was blessed with strong shoulders, and legs and arms.

  18. What about longer swims or races eg swimming the channel or iron man that kind of thing

    1. Hi Ian, longer races changes the nature of the training, and increases the need for incredible aerobic conditioning. That would make the height of the swimmer less important than races that have a substantial anaerobic component. In other words, out train them!

  19. There’s no doubt that these elite swimmers are several standard deviations above the mean when it comes to their height. Yes – it’s possible to overcome such a deficit, but not easy. That’s no reason to avoid the sport, but it’s extremely unlikely that a 5’2″ woman or a 5’6″ man is going to make it at a world championship level.

    As one poster said, it’s just physics.

    1. Hi Kevin, there is no doubt that the truly elite athletes are, generally speaking, several standard deviations above the mean in terms of genetics, trainability, proprioception, height, etc. Height is just one of those factors, and nobody is superlative in all. So far in the Rio swimming results I’ve noticed one woman finalist under 5′, and one male finalist at 5’6″. So it’s certainly possible to reach those levels, but as you said, extremely unlikely. But then its extremely unlikely that any individual swimmer will make Rio finals. All we can do is aim to be the best version of us possible.

  20. George Harris · · Reply

    Hi, Rick ! Thanks for amazing article and blog. Your version of nature vs nurture nuanced debate is mesmerizing. Here’s an angle that has not been analyzed yet: short (25m) vs long (50m) course. One of the most phenomenal short swimmers is Kenneth To/Australia w incredibly low 170sm height. Here is an interesting nuance: his 2013 200m medley on short course 1:52.01 is within 0.45% of the current world record, yet in the same year on long course 1:58.72 is about 2% behind world record. Can you find more evidence that short course favors short athletes more – by 1-2% points in performance metrics vs long course? Is there a point here? Thanks.

    1. Ya thats not true at all, because a taller swimmer can be further away from the wall and start their turn. Again, taken the same skill level the person with the height advantage will be the faster swimmer….

      1. Josh, the distance gained in a turn by a taller swimmer is a function of their height. That’s just one dimension. The speed of a turn is a function of the mass to be moved, and the distance in which the mass must be moved. Since a shorter swimmer has a shorter distance to move their mass, and since mass is based on volume which is a function of height cubed, a shorter swimmer will flip more quickly and has a slight advantage based on the physics of the turn skill. As I said earlier, its a minor difference, but it is a difference. I’d suggest that any such benefit to be gained would be much smaller than potential gains based on the pushoff velocity, minimizing water resistance during streamline, and underwater kicking motion.

  21. short or long courses do not “favor” short athletes. Its pretty simple- The longer a person is they have a natural advantage because of their reach. A shorter swimmer has the odds against him/her that he/she will be faster then a taller athlete. George is trying to curve the truth for towards what he wants to hear- that short athletes can perform better on short courses, which just isn’t true.

    1. George, Josh, I think the issue of SC vs LC for short swimmers is just a matter of skill set. The only decided difference is that a short swimmer will be able to flip through the turn more quickly due to shorter torso and legs. However, that is a very minor difference. It all comes down to streamline and underwater kicking abilities as those dominate the SC vs LC differentiators. To be brutally honest, swimming is still immature in terms of underwater practice, and so somehow who excels at these skills would be expected to be relatively faster at SC, independent of height.

  22. I wanted to revisit this wonderful post because most of the rest of the world are “short” relative to the over 6’0″ stereotypical elite swimmer. I am short and entered this wonderful sport “late” as a high schooler, double whammy. However, what I lacked in both experience and height, I made up in technique. The real advantage to maximizing technique is immediate results in the breaststroke, 200IM and 400 IM. I have helped my son curate his events to become an “elite” age group swimmer, but only through careful selection of events that neutralize the size advantage of the taller competitors. To avoid the frustration of choosing the wrong events that leave your short child feeling uncompetitive, I’d like to emphasize again the importance of helping shorter young swimmers focus on the size neutral middle distance strokes, specifically 200 breaststroke, 200 backstroke and 200/400 IM. Shorter children can stay dominant longer if they focus on mastering the IM because it requires excellent technique in all 4 strokes. Most kids take the path of least resistance (relying on natural physical talent and go for the easy long axis win: freestyle sprints). If shorter kids learn early to focus on technique swimming for breast/fly/back, they can immediately see results in the breaststroke and 200/400IM races. Through my own trial and error the last two years, we have found that the shorter boys (we have a few friends in the same predicament) do best relative to taller peers in the backstroke, breaststroke and 200/400 IM. Not surprisingly, the 2016 Olympic data shows that the shortest Olympic swimmers excelled in the breaststroke and 400 IM.

    YAY data driven science!

    1. oh course- they are smaller and have less mass to carry… Has nothing to do with science. lol

    2. Thanks for your comments, OC Dad. You’re certainly right in that, in the long run, most short swimmers will migrate to events where stature is only one ingredient of many. Events that require technique in multiple strokes, require endurance and aggression, require discipline can make up for non-ideal physical dimensions. But I should also point out that in the earlier, non-specialized years, all swimmers should do as many different events as possible. Not only will this ultimately help an IMer, but swimmers do change their preferences over the years. As far as height, I was definitely much shorter than the average elite height, but my eventual focus on 400 IM ended up being my path forward. The harder the event, the more effort and focus it takes to do well.

      And yes. YAY to data-driven science!

      1. Thanks so much! I am defo short too and I found that the older I became, the better I maintained focus on technique in all strokes as I found they compliment different muscles from my preferred stroke of freestyle. Since I am a masters swimmer- all my mates are short. I happen to be the sprinter in short course and yes, funneling my adhd along with adrenaline and focus on technical drills helps me win my events. The endurance events are much harder for me for some reason.
        I never let my short stature hold me me back from sprinting- I adapt my stroke to the race and length and use my powerful kick to drive it in. Swimming challenges yourself in many ways.

  23. Thank you, Coach, for a thoughtful write-up on height in swimming. Presently, we have age-group swimmers at our house. My middle son, 12, is not too tall but not too short either, for his age. Up to this point, his technique has really propelled him to some fantastic swimming results. However, as of now, in the 11-12 age group, the height differences are immense. For example, he and his peers will all step up on the block (last heats) and it is them towering over him. Most of these kids are easily 5’9″ and above, at 12, mind you, and lots of them are very developed, physically. It surprises me, in fact, to see such differences in maturity, at this age. So, I do observe height and sometimes, tend to focus on it too much. I’m just thinking maybe our kids are later bloomers, albeit, they are not short for their age, it just seems a lot of swimmers (boys) are taller, much earlier. Perhaps they will get the genetics from their dad (6’4″) and not from me (well a little) at 5’5″. 🙂 Thank you for an insightful and thought-provoking article. I think many age-group moms (especially) wrestle with this age/height question as we watch meet after meet. Cheers and wishes for a great swim season!

    1. Hi Anya, thanks for your thoughts!
      At young ages I basically stress that they learn to love the sport, and not worry about beating others. You’re absolutely right in that some kids mature incredibly early, and other late. By focusing early on a love of the sport, on improving, and on mastering various elements, future success becomes so much easier. I was a short swimmer my whole career. Early on I loved sprints, but as I got older I realized my success would come from longer races; from being tougher and more technical than other swimmers. And so I left the sprints behind and by university I was focusing on races where I could have a better chance of success. That in itself becomes fun! But a love of the sport, and not a love of winning, becomes the fundamental base that every swimmer should have when young.

  24. I’m the exact same height as Hagino and I was an all-american swimmer in high school. This was back in 2000-2003 so my 48 in the 100yd free and 23 in the 50yd fly (for the 200 medley relay) was pretty good. I sucked hard at the 500 where I couldn’t muster breaking 6 min. I worked really hard at under water fly kick, turns, breaking out of the water strong and holding form for the min or so I was racing.

    As a masters swimmer I’ve focused on longer events. I’ve swum the 500 in 5:35 so still not that fast but much better than when I was a sprinter. I hover around 19-20 min for a 1500 meter swim. I spoke with a former D1 swimmer who is 5’10-5’11 and asked him how he got so fast (44-45 100yd free). He said his shoulders don’t get tired. Strong shoulder joints are hugely advantageous. Something I definitely don’t have and why I get really tired shoulders in long events.

  25. You should see FINA Junior World Championship 2017 Men 200m Breaststroke final. Very impressive for both tall and short swimmers in land 4 and 5.

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